The NFL is filled with talent. There’s no shortage of it. Even as the most revered players retire, the NFL draft supplies the league with a fresh set of rookies every spring. In a class of over 200 talented young players, however, it’s hard to stand out, especially if you come from a small college. That’s the story of Diontae Johnson. In 2019, the rookie wideout had the late Steelers’ receivers coach, Darryl Drake, in his corner.
Diontae Johnson’s emerging NFL career
Johnson played college ball for the University of Toledo between 2015 and 2018. While Toledo is not a big school, they are a perpetual contender in the MAC. During Johnson’s sophomore year, the team won their first MAC division title in two decades, then went on to win the MAC championship.
Johnson’s performance, especially during that sophomore year, is what gained the attention of NFL scouts. Across his entire college career, the talented young receiver generated 2,235 yards and 23 touchdowns, refocusing national attention on him.
After completing his four years of eligibility at Toledo, Johnson declared for the 2019 draft. Initially, reports Sports Illustrated, he was projected to be anywhere between a fourth and seventh-round pick, depending on who you asked. There was interest, but then again, there was more interest in a lot of other players.
He ended up being picked by the Steelers in the third round of the draft at the 66th overall pick. His relatively early selection was due to coach Drake’s intervention.
Going into the draft, coach Drake pushed hard for Johnson. According to Sports Illustrated, coach Drake said of Johnson, “It was important to me what kind of character he has. I’ve been doing this for 40 years, and he was one of the best interviews and guys I’ve been around.”
Drake was a famous wide receiver coach who spent 21 years coaching college football after a brief stint in the NFL during the 70s working on practice squads. Something about Johnson’s performance and presence immediately resonated with the venerated coach.
It was his voice and opinion that convinced head coach Mike Tomlin to take a chance on the young rookie. And so they brought Johnson into the organization, where Drake began working with him during training camp.
However, tragedy struck. Drake passed away prior to the start of the season due to unexpected heart failure. However, he and Johnson had the entire summer to work together, and Johnson decided to dedicate his rookie season to his mentor and benefactor. According to Steelers Depot, Johnson said of his former coach, “For him to push for me, coming from a school like Toledo, we’ve got guys in the league because there’s talent everywhere, but for him to push like that for me, it’s crazy. I would never have expected to be in the position I’m in now if it wasn’t for him”
What the future holds for Johnson
Drake may not have gotten to see his prodigy play a game, but it’s clear that Johnson took his coach’s lessons to heart. In his rookie year, he managed 680 yards and 5 touchdowns, adding decent depth to Pittsburgh’s emerging stable of receivers.
According to Sports Illustrated’s Steelers page, “Johnson’s career projection appears to be a straight line to the moon.” The Steelers have high hopes for the second-year receiver, including plans to insert him on kickoff and punt returns. Alongside teammates like JuJu Smith-Schuster, Pittsburgh’s passing game looks to be formidable.
And while it’s been a year since coach Drake passed away, his training and advocacy look to guide Johnson throughout a hopefully-long career.